April 2000

Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism.  By Paul C. Vitz. Spence. 174 pages. $24.95.

If Sigmund Freud had not existed, modern man would have had to create him. It was Freud, of course, who popularized the notion that God is a “projection” of unconscious infantile needs, and thus only a comforting illusion — a theory recently articulated by the Governor of Minnesota, Jesse “the Body” Ventura. But Sigmund “the Brain” Freud beat Ventura to the punch in contending that God is a delusion and a crutch for the feeble, but even earlier than Freud, as Vitz points out, was Feuerbach, on whom Freud depends heavily in his dismissal of faith as neurotic wish-fulfillment. Nietzsche was perhaps too abstruse to become a popular phenomenon like Freud, but Vitz, a professor of psychology, puts him on the couch as well. “Intense atheism,” as Vitz calls the creed of militants such as Freud and Nietzsche, is pervasive among today’s intellectuals, and the prevalent argument against theism is still the Feuerbach-Freud one.

Faith of the Fatherless turns Freud’s “projection theory” on its head, arguing that the theory provides more insight into atheism than theism. This reversal is supported by the biographical evidence Vitz has collected, showing that the childhoods of prominent atheists were marked by absent or defective fathers. Freud’s father was apparently weak, sexually deviant, and religious. Friedrich Nietzsche loved his father, a Lutheran clergyman, but the beloved father, never in good health, died when Friedrich was five years old. Later, Nietzsche, the philosopher, attributed this to a deficiency of “life force,” associating his father’s weakness and illness with Christianity, which he claimed actively rejects the “life force.” The Dionysian excesses of Nietzsche’s philosophy and his obsession with power are, in this view, the projection of psychological preoccupations.

The list of prominent atheists with “defective fathers” (dead, neglectful, or abusive) is long. Marx vigorously rejected his father’s bourgeois values, including his superficial conversion to Christianity; Hitler and Stalin, atheists who were also tyrants, were repeatedly beaten and humiliated by their fathers; and Mao Zedong hated his autocratic father. Vitz examines a veritable Who’s Who of modern atheism, including Voltaire, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, H.G. Wells, Camus, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, and Albert Ellis. Perhaps even more telling than the biographical sketches of atheists are the counterpoised sketches Vitz has compiled of well-known believers and their fathers. Prominent believers in the fatherhood of God, Vitz finds, have generally had very good relations with their earthly fathers.

This book is an engaging analysis of psychological factors in religious belief and disbelief. Vitz also has material on the history and anthropology of religion that refutes the idea that the history of religion resembles Oedipal development as propounded in Freudian theory. And glib assertions about the evolution of religion, Vitz shows, are patently false. This adds force to Vitz’s argument that atheism is motivated by factors other than theism’s ostensible lack of credibility.

As long as we keep in mind that none of this subjective material has any bearing on whether there actually is a God, it seems to be useful to correlate belief and unbelief with feelings about the world formed during childhood, and Vitz reminds his readers that there are likely to be “painful memories” underlying an atheist’s “rationalization of atheism.”

Vitz takes no pleasure in the record of childhood abandonment, abuse, and betrayal that correlates with rejection of God. Much as we welcome his exposure of the foibles of the crankish doctor who imagined a dubious Oedipal drama in the psyche of every five-year-old boy, it is saddening to learn that some of the antagonists we encounter in our efforts to be forthright about our Christian faith are atheists because the world is to them a forlorn place. Very early in life, apparently, some people get a view of their prospects for salvation (however they might imagine it) that is dismal. Barbed rejoinders to expressions of contempt for religious faith are probably not the best way of dealing with atheists. Kindness, gentleness, self-control, and other virtues commended by St. Paul will probably be more effective.

- Mike Dodaro



The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism.  By David W. Fagerberg. University of Notre Dame Press. 214 pages. $14.95.

Given that the subject at hand is Chesterton, let’s begin with a paradox wrapped inside a question: How could a man who carried on a love affair with limits come to believe in — and love — the Church precisely because she defied limits? Yes, the sizeable Mr. Chesterton was a man preoccupied with size, whether it be his own or that of his adopted Church. And when it came to Catholicism, Chesterton was expansive indeed. The Church was “not only larger than me, but larger than anything in the world.” More than that, she is “larger than the world.” And this from a thinker who preached the virtues of boundaries, whether regarding a painting or his country or even his Church.

Did Chesterton come to love his Church in spite of her size? Or did he love her size in spite of himself? No, he loved her because of her shape. To be precise, he loved her because that shape had always been at once large and authentically liberating, not to mention accommodating of apparent contradictions.

Like Chesterton before him, Minnesotan David Fagerberg is a convert to Catholicism. Fagerberg’s “journey home” began with Lutheranism — as practiced in Minneapolis, not Lake Wobegon. He traces the onset of his journey home to a serendipitous discovery of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in 1990. His epilogue is little more than a tribute to Chesterton for being the single most influential writer he encountered at any point on his journey to the Church.

But an epilogue does not a book make. Fagerberg has not written his own spiritual autobiography. Nor has he re-trod the path that Chesterton took on his road to Rome. Instead his goal was quite simple: to provide those not familiar with Chesterton’s apologetics with a single, readable source (after all, what has been written by and about Chesterton is sizable indeed).

Fagerberg has written a hauntingly good book. Hauntingly? Fagerberg as Fagerberg sounds curiously like Chesterton (to the extent that we might call the author of this book “Chesterberg”). But no charge of plagiarism is being made or even remotely hinted. Reading Chesterton, especially reading as much Chesterton as Fagerberg has, can easily have that effect.

Here is Fagerberg on Chesterton’s pre-conversion confusion: How could there be a Church so large that it could be simultaneously attacked for being “too sad and too happy,” as well as “too mild and too military”? If that sounds vaguely Chestertonian, it’s because it is more than vaguely close to the original. Which is all the more reason to read this well-shaped book wherein one happily gets a double dose of Chesterton, alternately via the original and his alter ego.

In no sense does a double dose of Chesterton imply that there were ever two Chestertons. In a very real sense, there was never a pre-conversion Chesterton and a post-conversion Chesterton. Yes, the man who wrote Orthodoxy at 34 was not formally received into the Church until he was 48. While there may have been the catholic Chesterton and the Catholic Chesterton, all along there was only one Gilbert Keith Chesterton, with plenty of him to go around.

Whether it be Chesterton the apologist, the distributist, the patriot, the humorist, or the defender of the common man, all of these Chestertons are on parade in this book, and all of them lead inevitably to Catholicism. Or so concludes, shall we say, Chesterberg.

Are there any battles, major or minor, between Chesterton and Fagerberg? To answer in the negative is not to criticize the latter. To be sure, Fagerberg remains in a state of Chestertonian exhilaration at the end of his near decade-long journey with Chesterton to their mutual Church. Thankfully, that sense of exhilaration led to this book, a book which even cradle Catholics will find useful. Useful? How about “exhilarating”!

- John C. Chalberg



St. Joseph in Early Christianity.  By Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J. St. Joseph’s University Press (610-660-3400). 60 pages. $12.

There is no evidence that the Church Fathers ever preached a homily on St. Joseph. He was not honored with a feast day until the seventh century, and the earliest theological treatises devoted to him did not appear until the 1300s. If one knows how to look, however, scattered references and allusions to Joseph can be found throughout the earliest of Christian literature. Fordham University’s Fr. Joseph Lienhard, one of today’s foremost Patristic scholars, does precisely this: gleans from the first 600 years of Christian thought to produce a packed volume showing how the early Church understood St. Joseph.

Lienhard asserts that the Fathers’ interest in Joseph is centered around three major concerns: How does one explain the double genealogies of Joseph as evidenced in Matthew where his father’s name is Jacob, versus Luke’s naming of his father as Heli? How should Scripture’s references to Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” be understood? Finally, is it proper to refer to the relationship between Mary and Joseph as a “marriage” and is it fitting to call Joseph the “father” of the Christ Child?

To show how the early Church answered these questions, Lienhard prepares the reader to encounter the Fathers by first explaining how they approached sacred Scripture and Tradition as well as how much of their interest in Joseph was fueled by a desire to safeguard the doctrine of the Virginity of Mary. Thus the second half of this work is filled with passages representative of the Fathers’ thought, whereby one comes to see how Joseph became a model for Christian virtue and humility, and how the early Church saw in Joseph a true example of chastity and love of God’s will.

Lienhard’s study is at once an exercise in academic astuteness as well as Christian devotion. He admits that no ready-made picture of Joseph appears out of the first Christian writings, but through his careful reading and appreciation of Patristic thought Lienhard is able to present the early Church’s understanding of Joseph in an intelligent and persuasive way.

- David Vincent Meconi



Blessed Are You: Mother Teresa and the Beatitudes.  Edited by Eileen and Kathleen Egan. Ignatius. 152 pages. $9.95.

The crowd assembled to hear Christ’s first major public sermon must have been as struck as we are by the paradox within the Beatitudes which He preached that day: If we seek to live in ways contrary to the ways of the world, God judges us to be happy. Moreover, God promises to bless us with the very thing we have given up. For example, if we give up power, we shall gain a kingdom.

Mother Teresa would probably top our list of people whose lives exemplified the Beatitudes. Eileen Egan, while directing programs for Catholic Relief Services in India, first met Mother Teresa in 1950 at her Home for the Dying in Calcutta. For over 30 years, Egan traveled and worked with Mother Teresa, and she relates many anecdotes which exemplify this blessed life. After reading this book, I am convinced that the Eight Beatitudes should be known by heart alongside the Ten Commandments.

All of the Beatitudes appear to grow from the first: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Although the gospels frequently summon us to poverty of spirit, at first it is unclear in the Egans’ book what kind of action the first Beatitude calls for. At a recent gathering of my parish Bible study group — which selected this book as a study aid to the Beatitudes — one woman commented, “Why should we buy new clothes for ourselves when we can get good-enough things at second-hand shops?” My friend clearly grasped the essence of the first Beatitude.

Once in Lima, Peru, a new Home of Peace was opened by Mother Teresa, only to be greeted by criticism from local priests. The sisters were stunned by charges that they were doing nothing to change the structure of society that gave rise to poverty, and that they were prolonging the misery of the people. Mother Teresa did not answer her accusers then, but on another occasion said this on the subject: “Those who believe in changing structures may follow their consciences. Our work is with the individual person, with the poorest of the poor…. All the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution, must be redeemed.”

Regarding the fifth Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,” Eileen Egan relates one of Mother Teresa’s “parable-like accounts” of a rich young Hindu couple who decided against having a big feast at their wedding in order to give that money to Mother Teresa “to feed the people.” They said, “Mother, we love each other so much that we wanted to obtain a special blessing from God by making a sacrifice. We wanted to give each other this beautiful gift.”

By 1990 Mother Teresa had established 400 houses for the poor, sick, and orphaned around the world and staffed them with her sisters (and countless volunteers) during a period when religious orders in general declined. Yet she took no credit, remaining always “poor in spirit.” Hers is surely the Kingdom of Heaven.

- Rosemary Lunardini





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